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IT shops explore connectivity options for remote users

VPNs are prevalent in enterprises, but Terminal Services and streaming application technology from Microsoft are slowly gaining ground for remote connectivity.

Remote connectivity technology from Microsoft is making its way into IT shops, in some cases replacing VPNs.

Terminal Services' Remote Desktop Protocol is helping some IT managers connect remote workers to business applications. Saving money and time are just two reasons that end users at Bay State Integrated Technology Inc. and its clients have opted for Terminal Services over VPNs, said Dan Stolts, president and senior systems engineer at the Lakeville, Mass.-based consulting firm.

"With Remote Desktop we don't need to install on the client," Stolts said. "That means we don't have to install hot fixes or new versions of software because there's not anything on the client," he said.

"We can manage everything centrally with Remote Desktop too," Stolts said. "That's a huge advantage of Terminal Services."

Using Terminal Services, Stolts said his company can buy cheaper laptops as well at about $1,200 versus $4,000 because the end-user machines do not need the horsepower to run a line of business applications. Instead, applications are delivered via a terminal session.

"I can think of about a dozen more reasons to use Terminal Services versus VPNs," Stolts said. His organization uses Windows Server 2003 R2 Terminal Services.

More servers make the move

Remote connectivity features are also popping up in Exchange 2007 and in the next version of Microsoft's Systems Management Server, called System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM), said Peter Pawlak, analyst at Directions on Microsoft, a consulting firm in Kirkland, Wash.

"In the Microsoft sphere, there is a creeping shift toward being able to securely connect without any VPN connection," Pawlak said. "With new features in SCCM, roaming users get a portion of the update they need, and Terminal Services encrypts across the Internet using a Transport Layer. That's going to be a new role in [Windows Longhorn's] Terminal Services," he said.

"The idea really is to make the experience the same [for remote users] if they are in or outside the corporate network," Pawlak added. "They can roam in and out of the network with no configurations."

Microsoft's acquisition of Whale Communications Ltd.'s clientless VPN technology now allows IT managers to set up a Secure Socket Layer or a Transport Layer Service to deliver encrypted in-house applications via a browser to a location outside the firewall.

"It's a way for [IT managers] to deliver internal applications securely using Internet protocols," Pawlak said.

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Alternate approaches to Remote Desktop

Securing Remote Desktop

Virtualization or application streaming is also a means for IT managers to bypass VPNs. The concept is to have remote users connect to a data center or server and have applications loaded onto local systems. The applications, in turn, last locally on an end user's machine only for a time specified by the IT administrator.

"I can see virtualization and application streaming supplementing VPNs," said Andi Mann, an analyst at Enterprise Management Associates, a research firm in Boulder, Colo.

A key product [for Microsoft] in this area is SoftGrid, developed through the acquisition of Softricity's application streaming technology, Mann said. SoftGrid delivers applications to remote users on an as-needed basis, without the need to install anything on the client.

"A user can ask for a Great Plains client, and it will download to a local system, isolated from the environment, for a limited period of time," Mann said. "What it does is create a short-term connection to an application without having to go through a VPN."

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